There’s This Thing That Happens Sometimes…

There’s this thing that happens sometimes.

You’re chugging along, doing your thing — and in this case, I mean a creative thing. Maybe you’re a writer, a painter, a cheese-maker, a Brookyln-based hipster widget artisan, a techno-fuck-shaman — then suddenly comes this moment where you catch a glimpse of another human being doing that same creative thing you do. And they’re doing it at such a level, you experience a moment of awe that punctuates the moment before you tumble into darkness. You step onto this grease-slick slope, sliding down through the shadow of envy, doubt, uncertainty. You feel smaller and smaller as you fall farther and farther. You tumble face-first into the revelation of your own inadequacy, your grotesque and unconquerable imperfection, your worst failures —

And suddenly your doubt has the hunger and gravity of a collapsing star.

You feel like you want to go to sleep.

You don’t want to count sheep but instead, count your mistakes.

Again and again, over and over.

You’ll never operate at that level, you think.

You’ll never write with such elegance. Or tell such a glorious story. Or make people think and feel the same way this book has made you think and feel. You’ll never publish as many books. Or for the same amount of money. Or have the same number of readers or win the same awards or have as many fans or be anything at all, ever, ever, ever.

You’ll never compare.

You’re a mote of dust in a giant’s eye.

This feeling is a pit.

It is a slick-walled, vertical pit.

It is lightless and it is empty of anything and everyone but you.

I’m telling you this because I feel it, too, sometimes.

I’m telling you this because some of you have told me that I make you feel that way. Which makes me laugh because I don’t feel I could possibly deserve that, and the belly laughs keep on coming because I feel this all the time when comparing myself to other writers. I’m constantly teetering on the edge of that chasm.

But I try not to fall anymore.

Just as I want you to try not to fall, either.

You will never get anywhere comparing yourself to others.

It seems useful, at first — they represent a goal you can achieve, and that might work if other writers were a bullseye you could hit, or a percentage you could nail. They’re not. Their work is always outside yours. Their work will always be different, and it will always feel stronger than your own. Someone will always be doing better. Sometimes by millimeters, sometimes by miles. Getting published doesn’t fix that. Publishing ten books doesn’t fix it. Awards don’t fix it. They might pad you a little. They might buffer you — a bulwark against the buffeting winds of wild imperfection. But you will always find your way back to that pit. You will always look in the broken mirror of foul water and see a version of you that fails in comparison to others.

Stand against this feeling.

Remind yourself that you are you and they aren’t.

Be clear with your own traitorous mind: they feel it, too. We all feel it.

Step away from the pit by recognizing that while you aren’t perfect, you can always do better. We can commit to improvement. We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to. (I am a BEARDED WENDIGO KNIGHT and you are not. Who are you? You’re someone I can never be. And that’s amazing.)

You’ll never be them.

You can only be you.

You can improve yourself in that direction only.

And that direction is opposite of the pit. It’s walking away from the sucking void.

It’s walking toward yourself and your own mighty efforts and endeavors.

I just wanted to say all this because we all go there. And we can all get through it. None of us are singular beings in this feeling. It hits some of us harder than others (and to those who manifest this as bonafide depression, I can only remind you again that you are genuinely not alone). But it’s something we all experience. Doubt. Frustration. Fear. The envy of others. It won’t do much for you. It’s a poison. Stop drinking it. Spit it out.

Step away from the pit.

Be you. Don’t be me.

And create the things that only you can create.

136 responses to “There’s This Thing That Happens Sometimes…”

  1. Goddamn do I hope you’re right, sir. I’ve tried being other people and I sucked at it. Of course, I suck at being me, too, but nobody else can prove that, so I seem to be getting away with it… sometimes i suck so hard that it almost seems like rocking. Suck-rocking… which is one of those phrases you should never type more than once. Anyway, long-post-short: YES! THAT! What you said!

  2. My son follows your blog and suggested that I read this particular one. I enjoyed what you had to say and found it particularly interesting because my most recent blog parallels this one. That is, I am talking about the same general topic – that of realizing what you have to offer and not focusing so much on what others in your field are doing. It was interesting to notice how differently we both addressed the same topic. 🙂

  3. I’m in what I call “writer recovery” and your blog has been incredibly helpful. In particular, I clipped the BEARDED WENDIGO KNIGHT paragraph to Evernote because the mental image of writers as supernatural creatures in a room together was incredibly refreshing and amusing. Thank you for this post!

    • Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” He often paraphrased witticisms by previous writers, but this one sounds original to him.

  4. Great article, as always. Wheneve I catch myself comparing my work to that of much bette writers, I remind myself of all the other writers, some bestsellers, some certainly popular, whose books I think are absolute drivel and much worse than mine. And then I feel better. I may not be as good a I would like to be, but I’m bette than some, so that’s something to work with.

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